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Old 12-01-2011, 02:05 PM   #151
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North and Central America SUMMARY

Now that we reached South America (currently in Suriname while updating all of these posts to catch up), we figure a summary is in order. Here are some brief overview details of each country we've seen:

USA

Start of Trip: May 2, 2011
(Denver, CO)

Departed: May 23, 2011
(Douglas, AZ / Agua Prieta, SON)

Duration: 3 weeks

Average Daily Expenses: US$89
only 2 hotel rooms, camping, and couchsurfing kept cost down. Meals out at restaurants pushed costs right back up there.

Average Fuel cost: US$ 3.50-4 per gallon

HIGHLIGHTS:
Seeing family in Zion
Chaco Canyon
Couchsurfing with Karl in Bisbee, AZ

Mexico

Entered: May 23, 2011
(Douglas, AZ / Agua Prieta, SON)

Departed: July 31, 2011
(Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, CHIS / La Mesilla, Huehuetenango)

Duration: 3 months

Average Daily Expenses: US$58
due in large part to couchsurfing, and generosity of new and old friends (thanks again, Marina, Ron, and Alicia!)

Average Fuel cost (premium): M$X 10.5 per liter

Food was fantastic! Streetfood is good. And cheap.

Hotels were around US$ 15-20 per night, except for the random hospedaje below US$10.

HIGHLIGHTS:
Couchsurfing
Tepoztlán with Ron and Alicia
San Blas
DF
Palenque
Guatemala

Entered: July 31, 2011
(Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, CHIS / La Mesilla, Huehuetenango)

Departed: August 25, 2011
(La Ceiba)

Duration: 25 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$63

Average Fuel cost (premium): Q 35-36 per gallon

Hotels were cheaper than Mexico, and camping seemed to be more readily available.
Language school in Xela was US$ 140/wk including 25 hours of 1-1 instruction, place to stay, and 3 meals a day.

HIGHLIGHTS:
Couchsurfing in San José (in Petén) and in San Pedro with Federica and Petra
Tikal
Santa María
El Salvador

Entered: August 25, 2011
(Anguiatu/La Ceiba)

Departed: September 5, 2011
(El Poy)

Duration: 11 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$30

Average Fuel cost (premium): US$4 per gallon

Happy with a simple hospedaje-style room (with A/C!) for US$20 on the beach near La Libertad.

HIGHLIGHTS:
Seeing friends from Denver in Perquín
Papusas

Honduras

Entered: September 5, 2011
(El Poy)

Departed: September 8, 2011
(Las Manos)

Duration: 3 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$81
(note: this is not right. Being in Honduras for only 3 days screwed our math up, and we don't remember how much we had in hand at each border, so we can't really correct for it. Honduras costs are similar to Guatemala. We were traveling each of those 3 days, which make for expensive days, so we expect our Guatemala days to have cost about $60.)

Average Fuel cost (premium): 92 Lempiras per gallon

HIGHLIGHTS:
La Paz
Old mountain road from La Esperanza to Marcala
Nicaragua

Entered: September 8, 2011
(Las Manos)

Departed: September 17, 2011
(Peñas Blancas)

Duration: 9 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$52

Average Fuel cost (premium): 26-28 Cordobas per liter

HIGHLIGHTS:
Salcar's generosity with a place to stay in Managua
Robert's tour of the Potters for Peace factory

Costa Rica


Entered: September 17, 2011
(Peñas Blancas)

Departed: September 25, 2011
(Sixaola)

Duration: 8 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$68

Average Fuel cost: 750 Colones per liter (nearly US$6 per gal!)

HIGHLIGHTS:
Couchsurfing with Ivan
Generosity of family in Lagarto campsite and truck transport
Getting out of this expensive, Disneyworld for adults-esque country
Panamá

Entered: September 25, 2011
(Sixaola)

Departed: October 27, 2011
(San Blas Islands)

Duration: 32 days

Average Daily Expenses: US$tba

Average Fuel cost: US$xx per liter
(I forget, but kinda expensive)

HIGHLIGHTS:
Visiting Dana in El Rincón
Hanging with Erik and Beth
Stahlratte anchored in the San Blas islands
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Old 12-02-2011, 06:26 AM   #152
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Congratulations

Congratulations on making it to South America! We all look forward to watching your continued adventures but would request more pictures of Jill in a bathing suit!
Eric (Atlanta)
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Old 12-03-2011, 12:41 PM   #153
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Colonial Cartagena

Our first night in town was the Friday before Halloween, and there was a lot of enthusiasm around Getsemaní, the neighborhood of Cartagena we stayed in. Party goers were out in full revelry, but so were families, children, teenagers, everybody.

Getsemaní is the oldest part of Cartagena, but not nearly as well maintained/improved as the walled city. It is home to many budget hotels and seems to be improving as tourism increases (Hotel Villa Colonial was great, and the owners were incredibly nice and helpful. After one night there, though, we did move to a cheaper hostel, bringing the room cost down from US$28 per night to around US$15. There are lots of hostel options, we stayed at Holiday, but wouldn't recommend it over anything else.). We found a street vendor in a small plaza for food, which was deeelicious. French fries covered in bistec or salchicha and smothered in sauces (mmmmmmmm.....reminiscent of poutine....) The costumes made for some fantastic people watching while we ate.

Saturday morning the insurance hunt was on to see if we could buy short term insurance (1 month at around US$15 sounded much more appealing than 1 year at nearly US$200) or at the very least identify where the insurance agents are located and what hours they held. We started with a list of 3 offices, which happened to be supplied by the very same border agent who sent us to the non-existent office the day before, so we were prepared to turn this task into an all day affair. In fact, it was. One of the offices had moved out of a bank building (near the Cervantes statue pictured below) and is now likely the same as the office where we eventually found insurance. Questions led us to another couple of potential offices, all of which would not sell less than a year, but could refer us to yet another possibility. We eventually had it worked down to a 3 step plan for Monday morning:


  1. Go to Seguros Sura office accross from the Botas Viejas sculpture (near the fort). This office located between the Chevy and Renault dealerships looked impressively large, newly improved, and like a good option. (A few more clues about its location in this post.) Monday morning at 7:50am we would be there.
  2. Seguros Sura office in Manga, near where we first came ashore. Thanks to Empanadaman's info, we could expect to get a 2 month policy there (much preferred over a year, and we would gladly fork over the US$15 difference to stop our search)
  3. Gas station out near the Hospital Naval. A cabbie told us they offered insurance, but given all of the places we asked, I am willing to bet they will only sell a 1 year minimum, way too much $$$$.
However Monday morning panned out, running an errand like that was a good excuse to explore Cartagena.








(this is the clocktower between Getsemaní and the walled old city)

Within the walled old city, the streets and buildings are much more colonial.










(the walled old city has gone through a lot of renovations and is the center of tourism in town)







Monday morning at 7:50am we were at Seguros Sura, arriving with most of the office workers. The caja opened at 8:30, when the insurance agent got the paperwork started. We paid just under 30,000 Colombian pesos ($15) for one month of coverage and were out of town by 10am, on our way along the coast towards Riohacha, where we had a couch to surf.
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Old 12-03-2011, 12:42 PM   #154
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Coastal detours to Riohacha

Rolling out of Cartagena on the coastal highway was smooth (they have street signs here! And cities actually number their streets sequentially!). Around 50km out of town, there were a couple of cops telling everyone to take a dirt road detour to the inland road due to contruction along the coast. A few cars slipped past them, and neither of us were excited to get sent to some sketchy shakedown in the bushes (nor to drive inland rather than on the coast), but away from the coast we went. About 20 minutes later, we hit the main highway and started looking for a good food option. We ended up at a little road side stand which had bathrooms, but good thing Jill didn't have to pee - it would've been expensive.



It was another couple of hours to Santa Marta along a not-so-scenic road, but with a few small settlements to break it up.



We decided to crash in Santa Marta, the place of Simon Bolívar's death, instead of trying to get into Tayrona National Park to camp. Even though hotels were fairly expensive in Santa Marta (we found an hospedaje for around US$20), the decision to stay in town ended up saving us a lot of money over a night of camping. Who woulda figured?

Santa Marta was a fine little town, we had heard it was known for tourism, but we wouldn't be in any hurry to return. Only a few streets had anything going on, there were some reasonably priced food options, but along the water things were expensive (as expected) and in town things were mainly closed. Maybe we just hit the bottom of the offseason.



The next morning we planned to get into Tayrona National Park to at least walk around a bit, see the beach, and enjoy a break before making Riohacha.



We didn't make it past the guard house at Tayrona. It was outrageously expensive. Granted, the beaches we've seen in pictures look amazing, but we're talking DisneyWorld expensive:

  • Entry fee: 35,000 Colombian pesos per person
  • Bike entry: 7,000
  • Bike parking: 5,000 per day
  • Camping: 10,000 per person per night (hammock) to 15,000 ppn/nt (tent)
  • TOTAL for 2 people, 1 moto, 1 night camping: 117,000 Colombian pesos
  • That's US$60! (at least it is somewhat cheaper if you are a colombian citizen)
The ride to Riohacha was especially nice along the coast, and for the beautiful stretch right around Tayrona.



Mid afternoon we rolled into Riohacha and had some time to kill before meeting up with Carlos, our couchsurfing host, after work. Food and internet filled the void nicely.



Spending a couple of nights with Carlos in Riohacha was a great time. The first night we were refreshed with sangria, and then went to the best arepa stand known to mankind. It was a small shop on a somewhat residential corner where they cut the arepas down the middle, similar to a pita sandwich, and fill them with whatever ingredients you wanted out of their buffet of around 10 different fillings. Pollo con hongos, chorizo, carne molido, mariscos, camerones, you name it! Mike got all of them in 1 arepa, which was an excellent choice. It still only cost 5,000 Colombian pesos (US$2.50).


(Carlos, Jill, an albino, and Carlos old VW, which apparently used to belong to a prominent member of the Medellín cartel)

The next day was super relaxing and a good chance to talk more with Carlos, watch some movies (always good to see Stop Making Sense again), and take it easy. Fried chicken for dinner at a chain restaurant showed why it's common for it to be served with one plastic eating glove. That stuff was greasy! Also, don't order spicy hot wings when the menu doesn't show it. The employess will point at the wings listed on the menu, tell you that they can be hot, and then charge you 75% more to add a sauce that wasn't even hot. Lame.

That night we had a glass of sangria as a roadie on our way to eat. Carlos was in the process of taking a sip at a stoplight when a moto cop pulled up next to him, asking him what was in the glass. Carlos explained that it was nothing more than a little sangria for refreshment. The cop smiled, had absolutely no problem with the whole situation, and took off down the road. Apparently enforcement of open containers in vehicles is starting to pick up in Colombia, but only to the level of receiving smiles as warnings.

The next morning we took off early, ready to head to Venezuela!
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Old 12-03-2011, 12:43 PM   #155
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Entering Venezuela

Paraguachón was only an hour away from Riohacha, so we started the border crossing process early in the morning. We really didn't know what to expect for getting into Venezuela, so were glad to have time to deal with whatever. It turned out to be one of the quickest and easiest crossings yet. When approaching the Colombian gate, the DIAN customs office is on the left. A copy of the temporary import document was needed so that we could have a stamped record, but the copy was easy to procure (out the door to the left and into the building across the small street). Across the street is the DAS immigration office. Within about 10 minutes, we had cleared out of Colombia and even changed US$20 into Venezuelan Bolívares at 7:1 to have some seed money, although this exchange rate isn't great, we needed it to get us to Maracaibo.

Drive on through the gate until you arrive at the Venezuelan gate, which looks like this:



Go up to the lady at the table (they make her sit outside, but at least she had a fan running on an extension cord) who will fill out your tourist card for you (free of charge). Present that and passport to guy behind the counter and you're past immigration. Easy!

7km down the road, the SENIAT customs building is noticeably on the left hand side.


(it's fun to look for your favorite shot of Chavez in here. They have lots to choose from)

The employees were super friendly, and got our paperwork moving right away. They filled out all of the forms themselves, sent an inspector out to check the VIN and we were on our way. First border crossing completed within an hour!

As of now (Nov 2011), the SENIAT office is only open during the week, not weekends, 8am-12pm and 1pm-4:30 Monday to Friday. We think it may be the same on the Colombia side, but either way, avoid the weekends.

One of the first things we noticed was the road conditions. Much more pot-holed and unpaved than Colombia. Also, the cars on the road were noticeable - more than half of them were old American sedans. It felt like we had just entered a demolition derby ring (but thankfully none of the other drivers felt that way). These old sedans are called porpuestos (translates to "per seat") and are the bus/taxi system used in the region. They also reminded Jill of her first car, a 1986 blue Caprice Classic. It is quite possible that she saw the very car that she used to own in the street.


(porpuestos on right, traffic in Guarero)

The road across to Maracaibo was an easy, somewhat uninteresting stretch, similar to what we had seen across northern Colombia. And again, broken up by small, poor settlements.



As we got closer to the big city, we stopped in a small town for some authentic Venezuelan food. The food we had was great, but most memorable was the cute young waitress who served us. She was so extremely curious about what we were doing in her little town, just stared at us with wide eyes and a mysterious smile, absorbing any answers to her questions with a longer than normal, thoughtful, staring silence. So far, everyone we had met in Venezuela was warm and friendly, and that trend continued all the way across the country.
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Old 12-03-2011, 12:44 PM   #156
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Baack Market exchanges in Maracaibo

Our first stop in Venezuela was in Maracaibo to couchsurf with Alejandro. Thanks to our new and improved GPS maps (thanks to Terry on the Stahlratte), we were able to easily navigate to his house, which was in a very nice residential area of the large city. Alejandro is currently renovating a home that has been in his family for a long time. His sister lives in one half of the house while he and his brother live in the other half while they fix the house up. The house is massive, and there's still a bit of work to do.


(the brother lives upstairs, just climb the ladder on top of the weight bench)

One of the first things we did with Alejandro was try to exchange money. In Venezuela, the legal exchange rate is about 4.5 bolívars to $1. But, on the black market the rate is 8 or 8.5 bolívares to $1. Although it is technically illegal to buy or sell dollars on the black market, it is a very, very common practice. We went to the local grocery store and although we could not exchange that evening, were able to exchange the next morning no problem. Luckily we had enough money then to buy flour, eggs and cheese. With that, we were able to eat homemade arepas for several meals. Arepas are the most popular traditional cuisine in Venezuela and can be stuffed with various combinations of meat, veggies and cheese. They taste pretty darn good and are super cheap and easy to make.


(Alejandro making arepas, the crazed look is not usual, just happens to be the picture we have)

A majority of the time we just hung out with Alejandro in the room he gave us to sleep in. It was equipped with air conditioning, a tv, and computer with internet. We took advantabe to catch up with both our emails and the Kardashians. Seriously, Alejandro knew a lot about American pop culture and we actually did spend a lot of time watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians (and Jill is now hooked). To reclaim at least some of his masculinity, Mike did get the TA washed to fully knock the salt off from our ocean voyage.



Another highlight was going to the local bar/cantina and drinking beer in the street with the locals. The beers came in miniature glass bottles (maybe 8 oz) and we wanted to try both kinds (Polar Ice and Regional), so we kept switching back and forth between beers each round. The robust bartender lady thought it was hi-la-ri-ous, absolutely losing herself in a fit of laughter when we got our 3rd round. An old drunkish guy was also nice enough to give Mike a shot of the rum he was drinking straight out of the bottle. That was pretty entertaining for everyone too.

Overall we enjoyed Maracaibo but were glad we had someone to show us around as the city could have been much more uninviting in a different neighborhood or without a local host.
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Old 12-03-2011, 12:59 PM   #157
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Who turned out the lights?

We left Maracaibo after 2 days to head for our next couchsurfing adventure in Maracay. Both google maps and our GPS said it would take about 7 hours to get there, which is a pretty long day for us, but we wanted to get there because we knew we had an inviting, and free, bed waiting.

So, we headed out early and after driving around Maracaibo for about an hour trying to find the right way out of town, we were finally making progress. One of our stops was to fill up with gas. We had heard gas was cheap, and it sure was! At the black market rate of 8.5:1, it works out to be about US$0.01 per liter, or 4 cents per gallon. (No wonder those porpuesto drivers don't worry about fuel economy)



We hit a lot of consistent traffic almost immediately. After sitting or slowly moving for a few hours, we finally found the holdup - a bicycle race. And not only did we find the hold up, we ended up riding through the middle of it. (Hey, there were other motorcycles doing it! So what if they looked a little more official than us...)



Once we were finally able to pass all the bikes we were able to move for a couple of hours until we hit another traffic jam for no apparent reason. Eventually we were able to see that a truck had lost a full load of beer on the highway, blocking two full lanes of traffic.


("Homer no function beer well without")
Which had created this mess:


(thankfully lane splitting is the norm, so we were able to work through this much faster than most)
Once past the beer spill, we were moving again for several hours. One thing we had discovered early in the day was that our headlight was not working, likely due to a defective cheap relay we purchased in Panama. So, we had really, really hoped to not be on the road at night. Unfortunately, by the time we had passed both of the road obstacles that day, it was already getting towards late afternoon and we were still a couple of hours from Maracay. Then it started raining. It rained hard, so hard that we were driving through puddles to our boots and it looked like geysers had sprung in some parts of the road. And again traffic was slowed to a crawl. This time we were alright with the slow pace though, as our visibility was near zero.


(notice the flowing water at right)
The rain never really stopped, but did eventually let up, which was nice because now we still had to drive over an hour without a headlight in the dark on a very busy and dangerous highway. We were both scared for our lives as the highway had lots of potholes and other obstacles that we could no longer see well at all, except for the subtle reflections of brake lights off of the wet tarmac. If we would have seen a hotel or anywhere to stop along the way, we would have, but there was nothing. And moving slowly along the shoulder of the road with other slow moving (and generally poorly lit) mopeds seemed a bit safer than stopping on the shoulder. Finally, within the city limits of Maracay, we found a gas station and McDonald's. We had our couchsurfing host Filipo's number, but there was no pay phone in sight. Luckily, the gas station attendent let us make a call with his phone and we begged Filipo to come meet us so we could follow him to his house. Filipo agreed and it was a much safer drive following closely and still very slowly in his taillights to his house, about 20 more minutes away.

In all we drove for well over 12 stressful and dark hours and were very, very glad to have made it safely. Very glad. That evening's drive was by far the stupidest thing that Mike has ever chosen to do, but it still somehow seems like it was the best option at the time, given the lack of places to stop safely. If it's any consolation, we now carry a spare relay. And hope to never repeat anything like that again.
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Old 12-03-2011, 01:09 PM   #158
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Exceptional hospitality in Maracay

After such a rough ride, it was a huge relief to get to Filipo's house. He currently lives with his parents, brother, brother's girlfriend, and cousin in Turmero, just outside of Maracay. The entire family were some of the most genuinely nice people we have met yet on the trip. And it was wonderful to have such a comfortable space to stay in and dry out.



Although we were extremely tired from our day, we went out with Filipo and a few other people. After a couple of drinks, both of us were basically falling asleep in our chair, but they were so excited to show us Maracay that we ended up getting home at 2 am - way past our bedtime. The next morning, Felipo's parents woke us up early for this breakfast.



Then, they told us to go back to bed, which is exactly what we did. Later in the morning when we woke up, we hung out with the family for awhile before they started a mean game of UNO.


(from left to right, father, cousin, brother's girlfriend, Filipo (standing), brother, mother, and Mike)

Instead of playing cards, we went with Filipo to the Santa Teresa rum distillery located in town.


(train formerly used at the distillery)


(on the new train)


(old equipment used in the distilling process)


(antiquated buildings)


(this is where they keep the booze - it's dangerous)

After the tour, we got to do a rum tasting. It was very classy, except everyone was taking 6 shots of rum.


(Jill, Filipo and his friend)

After the tasting they took us to another classy room where they gave us a mixed drink of our choice. If you made it out of the room standing, you got a certificate!



Once we got back to the house, the family was already cooking up a massive dinner, which they shared with us. Filipo's dad even gave Mike two spare relays to get the headlight working again. Sadly, we were only able to spend 2 nights in Maracay before we had to move on. We really enjoyed our time spent and appreciated their extremely generous hospitality.
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:13 AM   #159
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Lowside into a concrete spacewalk

We knew another long day of riding awaited us to arrive in Lechería that evening. A good breakfast, strong coffee, and our final good byes sent us along the hot Venezuelan tarmac. We decided to avoid Caracas all together, and even opted to not go through the mountainous Guatopo national park road to save time. Even so, the route through San Juan de los Morros over towards Barcelona was beautiful. This 2 lane highway passed through a lot of small towns, had light traffic, and was much more interesting than the thoroughfares that brought us into the Maracay area. Some of what made it interesting also made it dangerous...

Cruising at a relaxed pace along a decently paved 2 lane road through light twisties, entering regions of dense forest/jungle on each side for stretches, then exiting into open, rolling agricultural expanses. Coming around a tight curve to the right, with not that much speed, not that much lean, and a large spot of fresh oil in the road, the front wheel slid out immediately, putting the engine guard bags onto the pavement, along with the rest of the bike immediately after. Slow motion started. The bike was no longer controllable, laying Jill and me gently down on the road, as it slid forward and ahead of us. Mike's slide took him directly forward in our lane, as Jill began to slide more towards the centerline. The truck that had been following us was luckily far enough behind us to brake safely, but hurriedly. We continued sliding for a good length (15-20 meters?) coming to a stop and hopping right up. The TA had slid off the road to the right hand side, settling into the small ditch. Jill and I were both able to stand up and walk off to the side of the road. The 3 Venezuelans in the truck had already come to a stop just in front of the TA and were waving/warning any oncoming traffic down (luckily only that 1 truck was near us at the time, and these guys were super helpful with picking up the bike and pieces too. When they were picking up our luggage and items, they kept saying "no te preocupes, todos los venezolanos no son ladrones." Eventually they were making jokes about us riding a motorcycle all the way from the states, asking if a car would have been safer.). Jill and I checked each other out to make sure we were alright, and thank God we were almost altogether unscathed. Next step, see what damage was done to our trusty stead.



The GIVI trunk was in the middle of the road, having broken its locking tab off the base plate. Jill's saddle bag was still attached to the bike, but with a few new "ventilation" holes. The right side engine guard bag was in tatters, and we had lost some of the small spares on that side, and damaged the spare tube within. The front end was tweaked, but rideable. With our spare rope we tied the pieces back together again and were able to get out of there. Hanging out on the side of a Venezeulan highway around a blind curve was not a good place to be.



Down the road aways, we stopped again to collect ourselves, drink some water and double check our state. We were fine, and the bike was riding fine. In fact, because of the fantastic outcome, we both even admitted that the slide was a lot of fun. It was this weightless, sliding, spacewalk sensation that no slip-and-slide can ever compare to. Once again, another motorcycle experience that both of us hope to not repeat. But we are lucky and thankful that all was alright this time. And now that we are updating our blog, and typing about this crash and the hellacious experience riding into Maracay, it seems like Venezuela was harsh to us. But while we were there, it didn't feel that way at all. We both loved Venezuela, the positive experiences far overshadowed the scary events. But these events fit better into blog format than the day to day conversations and intangible feelings.

By this time on that afternoon, we are really looking forward to getting to Lechería to relax. Only 4.5 more hours to go...


(street scene of a small town on the way to Lechería)



By the time we got to Lechería, we had dealt with over an hour worth of traffic crawling through Pto la Cruz. We found a corner with some shops and restaurants to call Ricardo, our couchsurfing host. Jill had a good chance to practice her Spanish asking the shopkeepers to borrow a phone (public phones are near impossible to find in Venezuela) and to get directions. We guessed pretty well on our way into town, somehow ending up within 2 blocks of Ricardo's house.
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:15 AM   #160
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Milkin' it in Lechería

Our couchsurfing hosts in Lechería were Ricardo and his soon to be wife, Suzy. Ricardo had gone to culinary school in Florida, so his English was perfect and we were pleasantly surprised by his making us gourmet pizza on our first night. Suzy works for the oil company in town (used to be a few more oil companies in town, now PDVSA is the one...), so has more of a 9-5 type job, and got to practice her English with us (it is a lot better than she thinks it is). They also have a wonderfully psychotic cat that seems to be in constant motion and were dog sitting for a 2 year old pug that seems to have a knack for always being the center of attention. The cat hates the dog, so that made it even more fun.

Luckily for us, Ricardo's work schedule is pretty flexible right now, so we were able to hang out with him quite a bit and he took us around the area. Lecheria used to be a lazy fishing town, at some point was a milk producing area (hence the name) for the bigger city of Barcelona, but has now developed into a very modern city. It is attached geographically to three other cities, Barcelona, Puerto la Cruz, and Guanta. Together they are one of the most important urban areas in Venezuela and have almost a million people. Barcelona is the oldest city and has a mix of old architecture and new. Puerto la Cruz was developed more recently, but has the look of South Beach.

Ricardo took us touring around the cities on our second day there, with our first stop at Cerro Morro, a hill that is apparently sinking, the site of the old fortress. Many luxory hotels and tourist places were built here, but are not doing so great right now. It is also a place that teens go to drink and make out. Ricardo said there has been a rise in crime there in the evenings. From the top, there is a beautiful view of the ocean on one side, and Lechería on the other.



He also took us to Puerto la Cruz to do some shopping, and there is shopping of all kinds to be done there. Also, not a place that Ricardo wanted to be with two gringos at night. We were able to find a few things we needed for the bike (new multimeter to replace one damaged in crash), and Ricardo found some nice knockoff sunglasses.



By the time we left, it was getting dark and was time to pick up Suzy from work. From there, we went to an awesome local Lebanese outdoor restaurant that seems to be full of people at all times, and for good reason. We got the platter, which easily fed the four of us, even though Ricardo takes pride in having once won a pizza eating contest in which he ate over 20 slices of pizza.




(Jill, Suzy and Ricardo excited about dinner)

We were sad to again have to leave after only 2 days, but needed to keep moving to stay on our schedule of getting to Suriname by Thanksgiving. After staying with 3 couchsurfing hosts in a row across Venezuela, we were on our own again through the rest of the country and beyond. We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent at each place, but we were both also ready to be independent again, too. It takes a lot of energy to ride the long days we were putting in and then be cheerful and entertaining to new hosts all the time. From now on, we will probably split up our time spent with hosts and time spent by ourselves more equally.
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:16 AM   #161
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la Gran Sabana

Our big goal after Lechería was to make the Brazil border, but that was over 12 hours away, so a couple nights along the road broke it up, as well as a couple of good meals.


(the best filled arepa yet - filled with pabellón, the semi-offical national dish of Venezuela with rice, beans, and shredded beef or pork - on our way out of Lechería)

We spent one night in Puerto Ordaz, a very modern city, with very few hotels that met our criteria (cheap with good parking). Asking at a corner store we were directed to a small guesthouse with 2 rooms for rent. Casa de los Lobos was a fine place to crash, but left us feeling slimy after seeing the older German man who owned the place, along with his 2 young daughters and his too young Venezuelan wife. While there, though, we did have the chance to try hallaca, a traditional Venezuelan dish usually eaten around Christmas time that contains meat and veggies surrounded by cornmeal then wrapped in plaintain leaves and cooked to deliciousness.


(Chavez loves creepy looking babies)

The next day we were shooting for at least Km 88, perhaps Sta Elena, both places where we knew we'd be able to find lodging. The ride was gorgeous and desolate.



The front end of the bike was still feeling strange, beyond that of just having a slight twist in the assembly. Checking the front wheel for play, it was clear that one or both bearings were shot, in the middle of nowhere, south of Puerto Ordaz. We limped to the next little town, Guasapati, where we filled up on gas and asked about motorcycle shops. Turns out there was a guy on an ATV at an unmarked blue door just 2 buildings away and that's who we should talk to. He was the right guy. We followed him 2 more blocks to his shop and had new front bearings installed within the half hour.



Back on the open road in much better shape than before.






(shadows got longer as the day went on)

Down the road in El Dorado we went to fill up some more cheap gas. Cars were parked for 3 blocks waiting to get gas (common at gas stations out of the big coastal cities). Motorcycles were lined up on the exit side, waiting their turn to get filled between car fillings. The armed guards (common at gas stations) waved us to the moto side, and even waved us in front of the waiting crowd of 15-20 bikes. We filled up for a few cents and hit the road. Most motos don't pay for their gas, only filling up a few liters into their small tanks. We ended up giving 2 Bolívares (US$0.24) to cover gas and a tip on most fillings in Venezuela.



When we arrived at Km 88 (that's how the town is even labeled on Venezuelan road maps), we decided to call it a day and find a place to crash. We ended up asking in all the hotels in town, finding each of them to be overpriced for what they offered. Most were 250-300 Bolívares (US$30-35). Even the places labeled as campamentos. There was one campamento that had an airconditioned room for 200 Bs, and secure parking. The town was a bit rough around the edges, we received some tougher stares than other places in Venezuela, but still everyone we talked to was friendly and warm.

Leaving Km 88 was a tight, winding, mountanious road up into Canaima National Park and to the Gran Sabana. The road takes you up 1500 meters to a gorgeous open expanse that would be a blast to return to and explore. There are some great dual sport options to check out lots of waterfalls (a few 4x4 tours run in the area) and a number of places to camp along the road. Santa Elena would be another good option for a place to stay and take day trips.







There was one police checkpoint, where the cop was on a power trip, but was still easy enough to get through. There was one military checkpoint when we were getting closer to Sta Elena. The military guys there were fantastic, asking us a few questions, letting us know a bit of what's ahead, and then sending us on our way. Best of all is that one of them came running out of his office, shouting and waving at us as we had just begun to roll slowly to remind us that we had to turn in our temporary import permit for the bike. Not that we'd forget by now, but still nice of him to think of it and catch us.







Santa Elena de Uairen was a very inviting town, not having the usual border town grit. We just traveled on through, but would have easily found food and lodging there, as well as hardware and moto shops. Out of town about 15 km, we made it to the border.


(leaving Venezuela. Office at left is both migration (in main doors to right) and SENIAT/customs (in main doors to left))

The bike was checked out within minutes, after lunch break was over at 1pm. Migration, however, required us to wait for over 2 hours just for the officer to show up to work. There were around 4 groups of people in line ahead of us, and by the time we got stamped out, there were 50 people waiting for one officer. Impressively, a line was actually formed and maintained (with some vocal reminders directed at a few wanderers). We were happy to get out of there when we did, and hoped that the Brasil side would still be open.

At the Brasilian gate, migration is handled by the federal police office in the first building you will come to on the left (follow the signs). They were friendly and fast, refreshing after our Venezuelan departure. Up ahead about 3 or 4 speed bumps is the customs window. The lady that helped us didn't speak any English or Spanish, and my Portugues includes all of "bom gia" and "obrigado", so the process was slowed some by communication. But worse than that, the officer had seemingly never been through the temporary import process before. There were long stretches of her staring blankly at the computer screen and forms, hoping issues would resolve themselves.


(dealing with customs entering Brasil)

After I got the appropriate copies made (about 2 or 3 blocks down, on the main street to the left, there is a copy shop on the right, directly across from a tourism office and small mall), and a few Bs exchanged, the process still took about 40 minutes. But finally it was done and we were happy to be in Pacaraima, Brasil!
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:18 AM   #162
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Speaking Spanish Portuguese

By the time we were finally able to wrap up the customs process in Brasil, it was late in the afternoon and there was no chance of us making it to Boa Vista, our planned next stop. Luckily for us, the town on the border, Pacaraima, was nothing like many border towns we have seen that you want to get out of as quickly as possible. Pacaraima was in fact pleasant, somewhere we actually wouldn't mind spending a little bit of time. It even had information for tourists, souvenir shops, lots of dining options, etc. We found the only hotel in town that was not either full (not quite sure how they were full because there were no other tourists in sight, but there is a larger bus terminal in the town so maybe that brought in guests) or had no secure motorcycle parking.

We walked around the town looking for a place to eat and finally decided on a small restaurant with a very friendly woman owner. She served something like a 3 course meal, complete with salad, steak, rice, beans, coleslaw, etc., for cheap. We loved Brazil so far.

For the past 6 months, we had been getting by quite well with Mike's Spanish, but it was a different story in Brazil. Mike usually started his conversations in Brazil asking if the person understood Spanish, to which they usually replied no, or they could understand some but not speak it. So, we kept speaking Spanish, which got us by, but we could very rarely figure out what the response was. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the border of English-speaking Guyana being so close, no one spoke English.

The next morning we got on the road to head to Boa Vista, about a 2 hour drive. The drive was rather monotonous and the savanna continued throughout.



We arrived in Boa Vista pretty early in the day, so decided to check out several hostel options. The cheapest one we could find was still $35, which was a little outrageous in our opinion. We had a few things we wanted to buy, but we arrived on a Saturday and despite the fact that the town has over 230,000 people and is the only town of size in the area, hardly anything was open. We tried to exchange money, but that ended up being an impossible task as all the money exchanges and gold buyers were closed, so we ended up having to use an ATM. We were staying right downtown, but it seemed like a ghost town. We had planned on staying in Boa Vista through the weekend, but since we didn't want to pay for another night at the hotel and since nothing was going on anyway, we decided to move on to the border on Sunday and see if we could get to Guyana.

The drive to the Guyanese border took a couple more hours, also through relatively boring savanna. We were not sure if the border would be open, but it was no problem. Our only holdup at the border was that the woman at customs did not want to give us a copy of the paperwork showing that we checked the motorcycle out of the country. From our small amount of understanding of Portugese it seemed to us she was arguing against her co-workers, who were telling her to make a copy. Finally, we did get the copy, which we ended up needing in Guyana. Despite the hold up, it still only took a few minutes to get cleared out of Brazil.


(Mike at the customs building in Brazil, note the engine guard bags replaced by 1 gal of fuel each side)

From there we were able to drive across the newly constructed bridge from Brazil to Guyana (until this year you had to take a ferry). You can't miss the immigration building, as the road guides you right into the parking lot. Prior to that though, you have to switch over to the left side of the road, as Guyana operates under the British road system.


(don't forget to switch to the left side of the road!)

Immigration into Guyana was very simple, although they do ask several questions and want to know a specific address where you will be staying in the country, at least they are asking in English. Customs for the bike was not quite so easy, because we needed both insurance for Guyana and copies of documents, including the Brazil document, neither of which we had. The woman was also pretty unhappy that Mike interrupted her nap, so was reluctant to even tell him which copies he needed. She did allow us to take the bike into the nearest town, Lethem, to get things worked out. Not surprisingly, very few stores were open on a Sunday in this already sleepy town, so we needed to spend the night and get copies and insurance the next morning from the Savannah grocery store. One of two hotels in town, the Savannah Inn, was owned by the same person, so we stayed there (US$20 for a fan room) with the promise that the owner would be there by 8 am ready to help us.

(There is another hotel in Lethem that is a ripoff - the Takutu Inn. Our first meal in Guyana was there - country stew. Random bits of white, fatty bush meat and innerds in a bland broth for 850 guyanese dollars (over US$4) each. And internet access there was US$2.50/hour, 3x as much as most places. Go with Savannah Inn.)


(almost all offices, lobbies, hotels in the area had out hot water, tea, and coffee all the time. Even Brazilian customs office at the border.)

By 8:30am, we had our insurance in hand (US$15 for 1 month), along with plenty of copies, and went back to customs where we received 2 important documents this time: temporary vehicle import and a driving permit. Both were free. And both needed a Guyana address, so have a hotel and address in mind if traveling through.
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:22 AM   #163
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Red Road

We knew that the road from Lethem to Georgetown could be hairy, as it is unpaved all the way to Linden, over 300 miles away. So we set out with some food, extra gas, and the expectation to take a couple of days. It did take a couple of days. A couple of long days. But it was suh-weeet!


(last bit of pavement for awhile)

Initially the road is packed fairly well, although there are stretches of bone rattling washboards that you can smooth out with speed, but somehow the stretches change frequency randomly, and the top surface can be a layer of loose red gravel and dust, which just adds to the excitement.


("Caution Bridge Broken Ahead")

Those washboard sections let up after a few tens of kilometers, transitioning into massively large potholes that had a sneaky way of hiding until the last minute, given the shades of the road bed. Some of those potholes were gi-normous! Big enough to swallow us whole.

Along the way, we did get to see some amazing natural beauty, including the scenery as it slowly changed from savanna to jungle, as well as a few glimpses of wildlife.


(Termite City was not labeled on our map)


(termite house within termite city)


(Pacaraima mountain range in the distance)

At 70 miles (on the odometer) from Lethem, there is a small community of a few houses. A large property on the left side of the road sells gas for 380 guyanese dollars per liter (US$1.90 per L). We went ahead and topped up while we had the chance. (It turned out to be 215 miles from the gas station in Lethem to the next gas station with a pump.)


(octane rating not provided)


(the bridges were in decent shape, but definitely without guardrails)

We eventually made it to the entrance to the Iwokrama national park, where a police checkpoint just takes down your info, but no fee.



By this point the road had smoothed out a good bit, and the potholes were fewer, as the jungle got denser closer to the river.



We arrived at the Kurupukari ferry crossing just a few km after the turn off for the Iwokrama eco-lodge and after another police checkpoint (again, just taking information, but you have to go inside each time).




(this van, or wagi, is the most common small vehicle on the road. Even more common are the DAF transport trucks)

The hours of operation showed the ferry running until 6pm. It was 5:15 and not much activity was visible, especially with the ferry on the other side of the river. A DAF truck pulled up around 5:30 or so, and eventually called us over to talk. Dino and Kevin were on the 12-14 hour run up to Georgetown and shared some tangerines with us. They make that run 3-4 times per week, pocketing about 10,000 Guyanese dollars per run (US$50). As we were considering returning to camp at the eco lodge, they informed us that the ferry had to run, since his truck got there before 6. Perfect!


(manual ramp on this barge)

We stopped just on the other side to eat dinner at Dorothy's place, along with Dino and Kevin, and to set up camp. Dorothy was so nice that she charged us a few bucks for dinner, but nothing to set up a tent.




(Dorothy, an Amerindian, has been at this spot serving food for decades. Another guest house/restaurant opened up next door to her, but we hope she pulls through)

The next morning we got an early start on a gorgeous day.




(traditional AmerIndian village on the way to Linden)

Once again we had the chance to see some incredible wildlife. The highlight was the tapir, pictured below. We stopped and watched it for a minute as it lumbered slowly into the jungle. We also had a chance to catch a brief glimpse of some kind of cat like creature (sizewise similar to a golden retriever dog), a couple of jungle beavers (I wish I could tell you what they were really), and one dead monkey on the road.


(tapir up ahead. This jungle cow wasn't too bothered by us passing. It's hind quarters were still visible to the side of the road as we passed, but our limited zoom didn't let us get any National Geographic photos.)

The ride towards Linden provided much different road conditions than what we had seen the day before. At the start, the road was packed, surrounded by dense jungle and easy riding.


(the jungle crept in on the sides of the road for most of our ride up to Linden)

There were a number of sections that were super slippery mud, along with some decent puddles and ruts.


(Mike coming through a muddy section)


(Jill was the mud scout when the going looked slippery)



As we got closer to Linden, there was less mud, but a lot more loose bauxite dust on top of the road. There were some short sections where the bottom absolutely dropped out to soft sand. Even though the TA was a bit sideways at a couple of those transitions, we managed to keep the rubber side down this time. Mike is not convinced he's getting better at dual sport riding, but was just evening out his Venezuelan motorcycle karma.


(passing trucks provided a dust bath)


(major logging operations along the way, most of their work is out of sight, this evidence was clearly visible. What about that "no logging" sign earlier in the park?)

There was one last official police checkpoint and one huge Chinese lunch when we left the national park. And then, the sky just opened up on us. We were about 20 km outside of Linden when the downpour began. We kept making slow progress, even though we could hardly tell what the road conditions were going to be - if soft sand was next, or a hard packed rut.

We finally turned towards town, nearing the pavement of Linden, when we encountered our scariest and most unofficial checkpoint yet. In the downpour, a youngman wearing blue fatigues, purple diamond studded sunglasses, combat boots, and carrying an assault rifle waved us to a stop and pointed to the side of the road. Acting confused in our rain soaked state, we pointed ahead to Linden and asked if we could go there. He didn't like that idea, pointing his rifle at us and insisting that we pull over beside the white van. Inside the van there were about 8 officials wearing uniforms and name tags and were not nearly as trigger-happy as the guy with the rifle, which gave us some relief. They asked to see our passports, copies were handed over. They offered a seat in the van, but we told them we were already wet, no big deal, preferring not to get in with any of them, let alone sit next to the rifle toting crazy. After reviewing our copies, they wished us a safe journey and we were on our way. No trouble at all. But definitely a lot of adrenaline.
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Old 12-04-2011, 11:24 AM   #164
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Manatee calling in Georgetown

We had lined up couchsurfing in Linden with a Peace Corps volunteer and were able to find his house easily with his directions. But, when we got there, he was nowhere to be found. A nice neighbor let us use his phone to call and we found out that our host had come down with a nasty dengue or malaria like bug that had him in pretty bad shape and in Georgetown unexpectedly. The neighbor recommended a place called George Bat to stay, which we unsuccessfully looked for. We were able to find a few other hotel options, all of which were pretty crappy but costing $30 or more, or decently nice and more than that (Massive Inn at 16,000 for suite). Eventually we tracked down the neighbor again, got the directions again, and found this George Bat place. It ended up having lots of character, which we liked. It was a pay by the hour type, but only for half of the hotel. The other rooms were for the all night type of visitor (4000 = US$20). The ladies working were wonderful and very friendly, even giving us ice out of their personal freezer for the much needed rum we drank in our room.


(The Bat Cave, in all of its blacklit glory)

From Linden, it is only about 60 miles to the city, where we had couchsurfing lined up with our host, Navin. We ended up getting about half way before hunger caused us to stop for some great food - eggplant roti, eggball (a hard boiled egg inside fried cassava), and curried chicken. Then it started rainingy really, really hard. Luckily, there was an internet cafe across the street, so we waited out the rain checking email. After a few hours the rain had finally slowed down enough for us to get to Georgetown where we met Navin at his house in the Kitty region of the city.

Jill had spent a week in Georgetown in 2005 and at that time it was known for being extremely dangerous and not recommended that you walk anywhere at night. Her group had walked at night and been menacingly followed by a couple of guys. They had also been pulled over while riding in a car that had to go to the police station where we learned that our driver was packing a pistol in his pants with the explaination that everyone has to carry a gun here. She had heard Peace Corps Volunteers' stories of seeing all-out machete fights in the streets. She was a little nervous to be back in Georgetown.

This time around, though, it seemed like Georgetown had cleaned up quite a bit. We walked around the area a lot and did not feel threatened at night when we would go get something to eat. We looked around the historic downtown area some and it also seemed relatively safe. On our first day in town, Jill needed to go to the Peace Corps office as they had her new passport and visa to get into Suriname. We met a couple of volunteers who invited us to come to a quiz night at a nicer hotel in town. We didn't have anything else to do, so thanks to the smarts of a couple people in our group, we won a bottle of El Dorado rum, one of the smoothest rums we have tasted, with its own claims of being the world's best.

Navin gave us the keys to his house right away and gave us free reign. He stays with his girlfriend most of the time, so we rarely saw him. When we did, he took us to his favorite restaurants, including one ran by a Rasta out of his wagi.


(Navin is on the far right)

The one bad thing about the house was that it had lots and lots of mosquitos. It didn't help that all our riding gear was wet and stinky and a strong attractant for them. We did have a mosquito net, but it hung very low and any body part that touched the net while we slept was covered in bites in the morning. Jill got the worst of it after taking an uncovered afternoon nap one day.

We also needed to get Mike's visa for Suriname so we went to the embassy one day and were able to pick up the 5 year visa the next. You can only get the visa Monday, Wednesday and Friday and have to come early in the morning and then come back between 2-2:30 in the afternoon to get it. We were also able to get necessary insurance for the bike for Suriname at the GTM Insurance head office at 27-29 Robb and Hincks Streets, which cost about $15 per month.

After an oil change and bath to rinse the bauxite off the TA, all our necessary tasks were done, and we were able to explore the city a bit.


(there are a lot of dilapidated wooden homes built by the Dutch and English during their colonization)


(streets are very narrow with no sidewalks to speak of)


(there is open sewage canals everywhere in the city, causing a pungent smell and the need to watch where you step at all times)

The highlight of Georgetown, though, was going to the Botanical Gardens next to the Zoo (we hear the Zoo is sad, even more so than most, so we didn't go). It is free to enter the gardens and we had heard that manatees lived in the water.



We found the lake where they live and after some time they came to the surface across the water. Jill had heard that you can hit the water with a stick and they will come, so she started doing that. A group of East Indian children soon joined her and showed her the correct way to call them, by waving foliage in the water. Manatees eat a massive amount of greenery everyday and the smell of the leaves draws them. We were lucky enough to see 3 manatees up close, feed and pet them. They are very docile, intelligent creatures that act and feel a lot like water elephants.


(calling the manatees)







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Old 12-04-2011, 11:26 AM   #165
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Let's go to Suriname!

After spending about 5 days in Georgetown, we were ready to go and Jill was anxious to get to Suriname. The drive to the border takes a few hours through several coastal towns. We were again traveling on a Sunday, so hoped that both the ferry and the borders were operating. You must take a ferry at the Guyana/Suriname border to legally enter Suriname. Lots of people illegally enter (backtrack) by taking smaller boats across. The ferry used to only run once a day, but now it runs at both 9:00am and 1:00pm. We lucked out because the ferry runs on Saturday and Sunday now too. It does not run on holidays. We arrived at the ferry at 12:00 with no Guyanese dollars left, just US, hoping to board.

There were already several people and vehicles waiting for the ferry. We would recommend getting to the ferry no later than 1 hour before it is scheduled to depart. When you arrive, first you park with the other vehicles, then buy a ticket. Tickets cost $10 per person and $10 per bike, but must be paid in either US dollars or Guyanese dollars. (NOTE: you must show both your Suriname visa and proof of Suriname moto insurance to purchase the ticket.) There are plenty of money changers outside the gates, but their rate is not very good for Surinamese dollars. Once you have your ticket, do not lose it and wait for the Immigration to start working. There must have been some kind of silent signal because everyone got up at the same time and approached immigration in mass. Checking ourselves and the bike out of Guyana was straightforward and handled at the same place you buy tickets. Once you are checked out you go to a waiting area that has food and restrooms.

The ferry is about a 35 minute ride across the Corentyne river.



Once to land, the vehicles drive off the ferry and everyone gets in the immigration line for Suriname. After passing immigration, the customs line is right beside it. Unfortunately for us, the maximum time you are allowed into Suriname at that border is 1 month.





The closest town is about 30 km away, New Nickerie. It is the 3rd largest city in the country with almost 15,000 people. We stopped at a halal food shop and Jill got to eat her favorite, Saoto soup, again. We were also able to get directions to a really nice hotel that cost us $25. We learned that the cheap hotel in town had burned down about 3 days prior.



We walked around town trying to find a place to eat. We happened upon Nancy Land, which we thought was great. It was set up for kids, but had lots of booze too. The food was not bad.



New Nickerie also has a large market you can check out. In all, it is a decent place to spend a night or two, but not much more time.



Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname is about 200 km from New Nickerie. The 2 lane road has been redone recently, is well signed, and it was a smooth and quick trip to the city.




(crop duster plane next to us)


(we quickly learned that drempel is Dutch for speed bump - there were lots along the way)


(despite driving through many small towns, there were not many food options until we got to Coronie, where we found this typical warung with delicious food)

As seems to be a recent tradition for us, we got rained on again for the last hour or two of the ride. We rode through the suburbs of Paramaribo for some time in search of downtown. Once Jill found some familiar landmarks we were able to find the hostel she stayed in frequently. Unfortunately, it was completely booked, so we had to stay across the street, which cost us about $27 a night, for a very small room with shared bath.

We were both excited to be in Paramaribo. The timing was perfect. We needed to be here before December 1, Jill's official start date for her Peace Corps Response position. We hoped to be here before Thanksgiving, as that evening the US ambassador hosts a dinner for all PC volunteers, which would be a great opportunity for Jill to meet some of the people she'll be working with, without having to travel hours to meet them at their site. And we made it on Sunday, with 3 days to spare!
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